If directors are the unsung heroes of television, Daniel Minahan deserves a crown. He’s worked on all your favorites: Game of Thrones, Deadwood, Six Feet Under, True Blood, to name just a few. He won an Emmy for American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace and was nominated for both House of Cards and the long-awaited Deadwood movie.
Dan and I have known each other for over two decades, having met on a short fashion film he was directing in New York, when we were just kids still starting out. He had already co-written the indie darling I Shot Andy Warhol and directed Series 7: The Contenders. When he first started making the transition over to working on series for HBO and Showtime, it was at a really interesting time for the small screen—sort of a second coming of the golden age of TV. Before streaming. When shows like Sopranos, Dexter, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Big Love—and later GOT, House of Cards, Mad Men, and Orange is the New Black would come to move the needle—luring in big players playing complex antiheroes. Before this, TV was the land of Aaron Spelling and Kevin Williamson. It was laugh-track sitcoms and really mature teenagers who spoke like adults. Movie actors wouldn’t deign it, film directors wouldn’t touch it. Masters like Alan Ball, David Chase, Darren Starr and David Milch—himself, a sort of a television Shakespeare, came along and changed everything. Suddenly, everyone had a cable subscription.
Over the years, checking in with Dan meant emails from Croatia on the set of Game of Thrones, from Santa Clarita Valley on the set of Deadwood, or running into each other in Vancouver on the set of The L Word. I always sort of wondered if he was aware of having been a part of this seismic shift in television culture, and the way that we would come to digest our entertainment later on—with giants like Netflix leading the way. When their latest miniseries, Halston, was coming out—starring, of course, a huge movie star like Ewan McCgregor in the title role, and directed by my old friend Daniel Minahan, I had to call him up.
Here, he talks about growing into his decades-in-the-making passion project, bringing the party back to New York City, and being witness to the rise of the new golden age of television.
LEO: To start, let’s talk Halston. I know you work with Ryan Murphy a lot and you’ve worked with him over the years and on [American Crime Story] Gianni Versace. At what point did the possibility of working on Halston come up? Is that something you were discussing for a long time?
DANIEL: I had tried to make this as a movie about 20 something years ago. Killer Films was involved. And there was a lot of interest around it, but we just couldn’t crack it as a movie script. It just didn’t fit. You could focus on one part of his life, but then you were doing a disservice to the big picture—which is this incredible empire he created, and how it was taken away from him. We didn’t give up the first time around, there were a couple of more incarnations of it still as a feature. Eventually I let it go. I put everything into deep deep storage. I was like, “Okay, I’m moving on from that.”
Over the years, I would hear about other people—like so-and-so is doing Halston, and it would just be… you know, slowly killing me. Secretly, I was kind of buying Halston pieces; I was literally at the Melrose flea market, I said to this guy, “Is that a Halston?” And he’s like, “Yeah, how could you know that?” You just recognize this stuff after looking at it and handling it for a while.
I bought this dress that he had made for Jennifer Jones, the wife of Norton Simon. And then other things along the way, and just secretly burrowed them away. Then two and a half years ago, [producer] Christine Vachon came back to me and said, “Hey, you know, that book’s available again?” And I was like, “Oh.” And she said, “I think you should do it. We should do it as a limited series.” And then it just clicked for me. In five hours, you could really go in-depth. And it immediately became clear: every single episode had to be a collection. The first collection, the perfume, and so on. Each one was about his creative process. And then through that, through creating these things, we’d show the world around him and the crazy little family of mischiefs that he put together, and the lovers, and all the drama; it just kind of came together that way. So it’s been in my mind and in my heart for a while.
So you brought it to Ryan [Murphy], not the other way around.
I had just done Versace with them, and we had a great experience. I produced and directed that. For Halston—it’s an incredible story, so everyone I would meet with loved it. I’d show them the ultrasuede dress. I’d show them the gown that belonged to Jennifer Jones. Everyone loved it, but nobody was committing to it. A lot of people were saying, “We’re gonna think about it.” And then, I was doing the Deadwood movie. I was having lunch with my manager one Sunday, just reviewing everything, and suddenly he’s like, “Okay, what about Halston?” And the phone rang, and it was literally Ryan. He said, “I heard you’re going out with this Halston thing. I love you. I love Halston. Don’t give it to anybody else, I wanna do it.”
He’s from Indiana like Halston was. So he was probably excited for it.
He is from Indiana, and also, he’s created this empire. He really rolled his sleeves up and helped shape the scripts. We all put a lot of ourselves into it. But I really think that’s the thing that Ryan had such a great insight about—being an artist, a gay artist, working in a corporate world. That’s where this story kind of lives. That became the climax of the story. And he brought so much to it, and he’s just been the greatest collaborator on this.
Do you feel that you having won the Emmy for doing Versace, and having done the Deadwood film which did so well, that that helped to bring this into fruition on your end?
I think so. It’s interesting you say that, because I have a friend, Mary Harron, who’s a director also. She directed countless things, such as American Psycho. And when I first let this project go all those years ago, she was trying to console me [laughs] and she said, “You know, I think you need to grow into this project.”
I didn’t know what that meant [at the time], and then I was like, “Oh, right.” Every time you go up against it, every time you, as a creative person—you know how that is—
You’re fighting for what you want. I just thought, Oh, this is what she was talking about. I think I grew into this. I think I have the experience now. And I’m a much better filmmaker than I was 25 years ago.
Of course. And I think the timing is really interesting because, post-pandemic, people are just dying for glamour and escapism—so the timing feels right from an audience perspective as well.
Yea. There’s synchronicity. And I do think it’s also about community and making a creative family. I think in this moment when everybody’s finally coming out of their bunkers and really reconnecting with people—I hope it speaks to that. This is a moment in New York history that’s unparalleled. I see Halston and his crew as this kind of movement. They were really—not quite an art movement, but…
It was a special time for the city, for sure.
A special time for the city, and it was kind of coming out of economic crisis. New York was considered the most dangerous place to live, and people had nothing. They just scrapped it out, and were really creative, and partied really hard and just pushed the boundaries of everything.
New York City needs a little help and love right now.
Yeah, and I think people are just ready to party right now [laughs]. They’re just really like, “Okay, let’s go.”
For a film like this, and obviously on Gianni Versace as well, the clothes are such a character in the film. How much do you get involved with the wardrobe?
Oh, I was completely in step with Jeriana. Jeriana San Juan is remarkable. She did The Get Down. She did The Plot Against America. She’s really incredible, especially doing period. We worked really closely together with the production designer, Mark Ricker, who is recreating those interiors. That first fashion show we chose, the thought was, let’s make it the one that’s very structured and verbose, very graphic, very black and white, very much imitating the French style—and that’s the collection that doesn’t really go anywhere. Then Mark recreated that incredible Angelo Donghia interior with the batik. It looks like a pasha’s tent, and it’s festooned with batik and pattern on pattern on pattern, and so we had to find the right collection and colors to go in there. Jeriana was very gracious, and we worked really closely together on that stuff, because it was so important to me. Because the story’s gonna live and die by the costumes.
Did your flea market dress make it into the movie?
It did. I think the purple satin one ended up on a background person. She was in another scene, and I said, “You look like Barbara Walters. Jeriana, let’s do her as Barbara Walters,” and we gave her that hair, that kind of Upper East Side big hair. And Barbara Walters wore those gowns. So she wore that in the basement studio sitting next to a David Geffen look-alike. So you can see what my poor department head had to put with. [Laughs] I had to live with this material for way too long. And I was very specific about everything.
How did you land on [Ewan] McGregor as Halston? Did you always picture him?
When Christine Vachon and I set out to put this together—she had worked with Ewan early in his career on Velvet Goldmine, and she was like, “Why not? What about Ewan?” And I said, “Oh my God, we’re at the same agency. Can we arrange it?” They put us in this beautiful room together. I’m sure he saw like five other directors the same day [laughs]; I like to think that I was special. We spent two hours together. I nerded out, brought all my show-and-tell pictures, charted Halston’s whole career in photographs for him and did bring in that shirt dress and a gown for him to see. Just to see how it was structured, so he could touch it.
How amazing, I would have liked to be a fly on that wall.
He asked all the right questions. I mean nobody else has those looks and that kind of incredible charm that Ewan has. And he’s just technically the most remarkable actor. I thought what he did in Fargo, his work in dialects and his movement and everything was just… I was like, “Oh my God, if we can get him.” At the end of that meeting, he said, “I’d like to do this with you.”
Nothing better than getting that yes right in the meeting.
Yeah, it was one of those. And yea, he’s the only person that works. So luckily, he said yes, and then we worked really closely on it. He was so great with the cast, he put everyone at ease, and they’re all really close to this day. During the pandemic, we were Zoom calling and doing virtual readings of the script.
Let’s talk a little bit about your other projects. First off, what’s the show people nerd out on you the most about? Game of Thrones?
It’s interesting, there’s two shows—well, actually [laughter] three shows, and it’s completely different demographics. The three shows people nerd out on me are Deadwood, Six Feet Under—which I think really spoke to a lot of people, and that’s usually an older group of people. And then Game of Thrones, which is across the board. The temperature in the room changes at a party when suddenly somebody outs to me as having directed the golden crown.
Six Feet Under and Deadwood were two of the most formative things because I’d only directed documentaries and a feature at that point. I learned so much from working with those filmmakers—Alan Ball and then David Milch.
Two of the all time best. What’s interesting about your career is that you really started working during what many consider the new golden age of television, when TV started to be compete with films, when some of the top talent and best filmmakers were beginning to gravitate towards doing television. Shows like Six Feet Under for Showtime and Deadwood and Game of Thrones for HBO really changed the game.
Yeah. It was interesting because I had worked on I Shot Andy Warhol as a writer, and then I wrote and directed that one cult movie Series 7, so then there was this expectation from me that I was going to do a bunch of films. Some very different things came my way, but the thing that really spoke to me were these series; and I’m always the most attracted to the writer. Guys like Alan Ball. But a lot of my core good friends were a little taken back and a little snobby about it. And then all of a sudden, everybody wanted in, and those became very coveted bookings, very coveted jobs. But I credit those for a lot of my experience in how to run a set and working with all different kinds of actors, and it was really, really a significant experience for me.
HBO at that time became the golden standard for TV.
Were you aware of it while it was happening?
I think when you’re in it, you don’t quite realize. I was just trying to keep up. I was just trying to do the best job I could, and not make a fool of myself. I knew that I was lucky because all of a sudden I had all the toys, all the bells and whistles. The DP would say, “What do you think of using a crane here?” I was like, “Really? We can afford that?” Coming from the indie world, I suddenly had to learn a whole different level of production.
It’s interesting that you started doing films, then you went into TV, and then it feels like TV brought you full circle back to doing films.
Yeah. It’s interesting. I love that you describe Halston as a film because that’s how we approached it. We shot it the way you would shoot a film. We shot at each of the locations. But I directed the whole thing.
It feels more like a movie than a series.
And we made a conscious decision to try to make it move the way a feature moves, except it’s five hours long.
What are you most excited to do now? Films or more miniseries—what’s your preference as a director?
Right now, there are two film projects that I have an eye on developing, and another project that I would like to do as a limited series. I would like to make an ongoing series, eventually. It’s such a big commitment.
And actually be the showrunner?
Yeah, it’s becoming more common now—people like Cary Fukunaga, a number of different people will be the director and showrunner of the series.
I always think of TV directors on series as the unsung heroes of TV in a way, because TV is more about the showrunner and producers while films are all about the director. Now I feel like we’re seeing more of this trend where the creator is also directing, and they’re sometimes directing the entire thing versus having a different director for each episode.
Yeah, like what Lisa Cholodenko did with Olive Kitteridge, that was so beautiful. What [The Queen’s Gambit] Scott Frank is doing is fantastic. And maybe it is a little bit like people are kind of breaking out of the mould of the journeyman TV director.
Who knows what the future of films holds. I can see more and more directors gravitating to TV. Would you say it’s not that realistic to have one director for one entire long-running series?
It’s more challenging, just because the model of series is one director preps the next one and starts shooting, the next one starts prepping and they’re kind of overlapping. But I guess to your point, what I appreciate now is that I feel like people are starting to recognize the authorship of the director in series. You bring so much to it. You’re responsible for so much, from performance to tone and to the visual look of the piece. And oftentimes, we’re fixing scripts. Not in this case, but there’s a fair amount of authorship that goes into it. And I think for a long time, TV directors were just kind of treated like furniture movers a bit. I’m serious. Move the furniture around.
Of all the shows you’ve worked on, ’cause you’ve really worked on the best, do you have a favorite?
I have to say Halston. I think this experience was incredible because besides getting people to recognize the value of this story that I’ve been obsessed with, I was able to hire all the department heads; I worked with them very closely. I cast all of the actors. I really created this little dream team and this ensemble that I just love. They’re all on their way up here in a car now, driving up to P-Town. We’re gonna spend the weekend together and watch the show together.
They’re just such a great group. That means a lot. When I started out, when I went to school—I went to art school as a painter, and it was so solitary. The thing that really appeals to me about this is the collaboration of it. On this show in particular, people were passionate about getting it right, everything from the incredible sets—like the Olympic Tower that was built to scale, and really well researched. You literally could go in there and create a collection. It was equipped with all the machinery and everything, and it was all contiguous. You could do shots that went all the way through.
Everything from that to the detail of the ginormous costumes to the prop master who found the exact pens that Halston drew with, the exact pads he liked, the cigarette brand, and created period ones and the cigarette holder which he only started using after a certain period. She got into all that. Everybody just played off of each other and got into it, and that to me is the most rewarding thing, it’s just having a creative family that really works.
You’re such an artist yourself, and you have such an artist’s eye, did you have specific inspirations for the film?
There were so many because Halston and his family, his little entourage, documented everything they did. It’s that period of Interview Magazine and people obsessed with the fame machine and people playing at being famous, not unlike today.
Just like today.
There were tons of photographs and videos. One thing that was really interesting is Ewan and I went to the Brooklyn Museum when we went back into production, and they had an exhibit of Studio 54 fashion photography, and they had these videos from Andy Warhol TV—no sound, but we were walking by and all of a sudden, oh my God there’s Halston; and it’s an interview with Halston in his Olympic Tower showroom, and I said, “Can we get this?” And so we went about contacting the Warhol Foundation, they sent us tapes, and not only the tapes of Halston, but the raw footage, so you have the outtakes and you got to see how he behaved when he thought he wasn’t on camera. He was really funny, he was really bossy at times, other times he was really bossy with the sound people—there was just this great stuff, and it was a really valuable tool because these are all characters like Halston and Liza [Minelli] that have a public persona. A lot of the work that we did was trying to imagine: how does Liza talk when she’s with her friends, when she’s not on The Larry King Show?
Or, what was Halston’s real accent? So that was really valuable to us. That was really fun, that kind of stuff, and just endless photographs. We would be shooting a scene, this is really funny—it was some big scene, it was dramatic, and Ewan had to chase someone out of his office, and then he went back to his desk and lit a cigarette and he stood in the window, like that iconic pose of Halston standing in the window of Olympic Tower holding a cigarette—and he just struck the pose; after we called cut, we all burst out laughing because we knew what he was doing, and he was like, “Well I had to give it a try.” Ewan loves photography and gets a lot from photography, which is interesting.
That accent must have been hard for a Scottish actor.
It couldn’t be more different, and he worked really hard with his dialect coach who was remarkable with him, but he had to find that private voice for Halston as well. As the scripts came in, we would sit at my desk and read them; I would read all the other parts and he would read the Halston parts, and—without any pressure—I would just get to hear what he was working on. That was really interesting, to have an insight into his process.
It’s such an important thing to get right.
It was imperative because you can just punch in Halston on YouTube and it comes up, there are countless videos of him.
These days, everyone’s obsessed with their favorite show being made into a movie, like they did with Deadwood, or like they did with Breaking Bad for example, and so many others. Is there one that you’ve worked on from years back that you would want to direct the film version of?
Oh wow, that’s really interesting. I’m trying to think… well, the Six Feet Under movie would be remarkable. I’m sure Alan Ball would wanna direct that. The Game of Thrones movies are already happening.
Is that happening?
I believe it is, yeah. It’s hard to tell sometimes with that show, because there’s so much fan fiction and craziness around it, but I believe those movies are in the works.
My last question is—you started out writing. Are you still writing? Do you want to? Do you see yourself writing something you direct?
I would like to write again, and there are things that I’m outlining… but I think this summer will determine which way I go with everything. I have been adapting some old journals. Really young. Early journals. So I’ve been trying to get back to that and finding my voice.
I could see you writing like an early, young Dan, Provincetown movie.
Young Dan [laughs]. Oh my God.
CHECK OUT DANIEL
As Director and Executive Producer on Netflix’s Halston
As Writer and Director on Series 7: The Contenders
As co-writer on I Shot Andy Warhol
As Director and Executive Producer on FX’s An American Horror Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace
As Director and Executive Producer on Netflix’s House of Cards
As Director on Deadwood and Director & Exceutive Producer on Deadwood: The Movie
As Director, Executive Producer and Showrunner on HBO’s Marco Polo
As Director on several episodes of Six Feet Under, Game of Thrones, True Blood, Grey’s Anatomy